On July 8, Istanbul hosted the first joint ministerial meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-Turkey strategic dialogue, which served to highlight the growing multi-dimensional ties between the country and the Middle East. Ankara has increased the frequency of bilateral meetings with the regional states, reflecting the intensification of its diplomatic activity in the Middle East, this has also witnessed the use of multilateral forums including the Arab League, GCC and the Organization of the Islamic Countries.
Several high level meetings between Turkey and the GCC aimed at addressing regional issues or deepening economic cooperation facilitated this dialogue. The first step toward institutionalizing a multi-dimensional approach came in September 2008. After his meeting with the GCC ministers in Jeddah, the then Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said that both sides signed a memorandum of understanding to institutionalize their relations by launching the strategic dialogue process. "The establishment of the strategic dialogue is the first regular consultation process the GCC holds with third parties… [which will] bolster the deep-rooted friendship and brotherhood ties between us. We plan to advance our cooperation in the fields of politics, economics, defense, security and culture through regular high level consultations," Babacan said. He justified the deepening Turkish involvement in the Persian Gulf region by stating that "Turkey is one of the first countries to be directly affected if instability erupts in the gulf region" (www.ntvmsnbc.com, September 3, 2008).
The dialogue continued by holding the GCC-Turkey senior officials’ meeting in Istanbul on February 9-10, which prepared the groundwork for the latest meeting. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu co-chaired the meeting with his counterpart from Oman and the current president of the GCC ministerial council Yusuf bin Alawai bin Abdullah. The Secretary-General of the GCC Abdurrahman al Atiyyah as well as the other GCC foreign ministers also attended the forum. The visiting delegation met President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Anadolu Ajansi, July 8).
The joint declaration issued after the meeting emphasized the parties’ determination "to anchor cooperation between them on a solid institutional basis," evaluated the state of mutual cooperation in various areas and outlined future goals (www.mfa.gov.tr, July 8). In the economic sphere, the declaration noted that a framework agreement on cooperation was ratified and they would further explore, "the prospects of cooperation in the field of energy, including oil, gas, renewable energy and mineral resources."
The framework agreement was first signed in 2005 by the then foreign minister Gul (www.haber7.com, July 8). During his tenure as prime minister and earlier as foreign minister, Gul used his personal connections in the region skilfully, and played a key role in deepening Turkish cooperation with the region.
After stressing the progress achieved in the Turkey-GCC free trade area negotiations, the declaration expressed the parties’ willingness to accelerate the process. In security affairs, both sides agreed to maintain dialogue in order to enhance military cooperation in areas of common concern, and emphasized the importance of maintaining their common position against terrorism and combating international piracy.
A main element in the declaration focused on regional and international issues. Both sides emphasized that "all relations in the region should be based on full respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the countries of the region and the principles of non-interference in internal affairs, and friendly neighborly relations." They exchanged opinions on regional challenges, including Iraq, the Iranian nuclear issue and Lebanon.
Other items addressed by the declaration revealed the extent to which both sides are exploiting the platform to garner support to resolve bilateral issues. Ankara accepted the inclusion of the dispute over the three islands between Iran and the UAE. In return, the GCC supported Turkey in its effort to secure E.U. accession, as well as Ankara’s stance over the Cyprus question, the Xinjiang crisis and the Alliance of Civilizations initiative.
The GCC countries recognize Turkey’s growing leverage in Middle Eastern politics and seek to achieve consensus with Ankara. The GCC members sympathize with Turkey’s policy of charting an independent foreign policy, and maintaining a balanced approach between Western policies in the region and the concerns of local countries on controversial issues. Indeed, Turkey and the GCC member states sought to coordinate their position on the diplomatic standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, developments within Lebanese domestic politics, the future of Iraq in the light of the American withdrawal and Palestine-Israel relations. Ankara values these ties in order to promote diplomatic support from the GCC countries in its bilateral issues and multilateral initiatives. For instance, during Turkey’s drive for U.N. Security Council membership, such connections worked to the country’s advantage.
For its part, in addition to such shared political and strategic motivations, Turkey’s policies toward the Middle East are driven by substantial economic interests. Turkey wants to attract capital to boost its economic development. Moreover, Ankara has actively promoted forming a free trade area with the GCC, which it hopes will be accelerated through this dialogue.
Ankara considers these flourishing ties as consistent with its new foreign policy doctrine, which emphasizes avoiding disputes with its neighbors and maintaining balanced relations with all stakeholders through multi-dimensional partnerships. Hence, Ankara wants to maintain dialogue with all the regional actors without antagonizing others. Although some had claimed that both sides might be an attempt to contain Iranian influence, Turkey and the GCC have carefully avoided giving any impression that their strategic dialogue represents an anti-Iranian axis in the region (www.asam.org.tr, September 9, 2008). Addressing this concern, Davutoglu emphasized during his press conference that this initiative was not "a new bloc or counter-bloc in the region. Rather it is a step toward deepening regional integration." Al Atiyyah agreed saying, "the term ‘strategic’ should not irritate anyone. This strategic dialogue is a peaceful strategy to achieve further development and economic progress" (Star, July 8).